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Column: My memories of Peter Thompson are as sweet as his maple syrup
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

I wish you could have known Peter Thomson. His greatest joy came in producing maple syrup from the 7,500 maple trees that cascade up the mountain from his home to the Appalachian Trail.

Peter was my counterpart in highway safety. He lived in a house that was built in 1790, when George Washington was president of the United States.

Peter died just after the first of the year.

His father, Meldrim Thomson, was governor of New Hampshire from 1973 to 1979. The governor was raised in Georgia and Florida and graduated from Mercer University. When Ronald Reagan ran against Gerald Ford in 1976, the two became close friends, and when Reagan was running in the New Hampshire primary, the two became campaigners.

Peter was chief of staff to his father and was later appointed by Reagan and reappointed by George H.W. Bush as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s agricultural stabilization and conservation service in New Hampshire, a post he held until 1993.

The place where the maple syrup was cooked down from the sap was known as the sugar house. His mother had a place built where hikers on the trail could come down and spend the night. Mrs. Thomson would come out in the morning and cook pancakes for them. After a hot breakfast, the hikers would climb back up the trail and continue their way.

As a boy, Peter would pick up buckets of sap and haul them to the sugar house with a yoke stretching across his shoulders. Later, Peter and his helper would install plastic tubing and would essentially use a vacuum system to pump the sap into the sugar house. 

Early in the tapping of the trees, the two men would look for holes nibbled by various small animals who wanted to enjoy the sweet sap. Tapping the trees was done when snow was waist deep.

By the way, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.

Peter looked like the stereotypical New Englander. He wore a thick checkered shirt and cap and thick pants and boots.

We visited his home a couple of times, including a cherished tour where Peter took us on some backroads in early October and we saw fall foliage like we had never seen it before. Yes, we have beautiful fall color in North Georgia, but there is no comparison to the vivid color of those maple leaves.

Like his father, Peter sold his syrup from a little building out front. It was on the honor system. You picked your bottle of syrup and put the money in a drop safe that was cemented to the floor. He was just a good guy that had that gracious rural New England style. 

A neighbor in a nearby town had won the state championship for many years. After several years, Peter finally won. His syrup that year had the right amber color and sweetness. I learned after bringing home a bottle that there was a real difference between the rich maple syrup and the corn syrup they sold at the supermarket.

Kind of like Peter Thomson, who was a different kind of guy. I will be forever grateful for his introduction to the beauty of New England.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns publish weekly.

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Peter Thompson, a New England maple syrup producer, died Jan. 3, 2023 at 81. - photo courtesy Mayhew Funeral Home